A game similar to bowls was played for many hundreds of years in England before it became popular in the 17th and 18th Century when publicans established greens outside their hotels.
In Australia the first game was reportedly played in January 1845, when English migrant Fred Lipscombe played another Englishman, T. Burgess, on a green that Lipscombe had laid down at his Beach Tavern hotel in Sandy Bay Road, Hobart.
However, almost certainly the game was played before that date because Lipscombe had advertised the availability of his green the previous year. In August 1845, Thomas Shaw also opened a green at the Woolpack Inn on Parramatta Road at Petersham, near Sydney.
The first official club was opened on 28 October 1846 at William Turner’s Bowling Green Hotel in Fitzroy Place, Hobart. Instead of players paying a few pence for a game, Turner charged enthusiasts an annual subscription of 10 shillings.
The first club competition was held in 1867 when Melbourne, Fitzroy, Prahran, St Kilda, Ballarat and West Melbourne Clubs played under a new set of laws governing team competitions. NSW and Victoria played the first intercolonial game, won by Victoria, at Annandale in Sydney in April 1880.
The Victorian Bowling Association was formed in Melbourne in July 1880 and a national governing body, the Australian Bowls Council (ABC), formed in 1911, led to the standardisation of most of the game’s rules such as the size of the greens, mats and ditches.
In 1947, the association was granted “Royal” status, and became known as the Royal Victorian Bowling Association (RVBA).
The period 1900-20 saw the rapid development of the game. The inaugural Australian championships were played in 1900 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. J.H. Sheedy of the Richmond Club in Melbourne won the first singles title however the championship is not officially recognised by the Australian Bowling Council.
The first official Australian titles were held in 1912-13 in Melbourne. William Sayers of Ballarat in Victoria, won the singles title and at the age of 38, Sayers remained the youngest winner of the title until Ellis Crew won in 1961, also at the age of 38.
In 1901 a team representing Australasia toured Great Britain and Ireland. Thirty Australians and 12 New Zealanders made the trip and after a token number of appearances as a combined side, split into separate teams. Australia won 11 matches and lost 10 with one tied, and New Zealand won nine and lost 10.
The way was opened for professionals on 21 January 1981 when the Australian Bowls Council agreed to abolish the strict concept of amateurism and adopt the infrastructure of a new organisation to include both professionals and amateurs. All affiliated Australian clubs became free to stage professional events and offer cash prizes.
Today there are more than 2,000 greens in Australia with a membership of about 450,000 men and women. The sport has an enormous following, primarily in Commonwealth countries, and Australia accounts for some 43 per cent of the world’s bowling population.
Women’s Lawn Bowls
Although women have been playing bowls in most countries for almost as long as men, the participation of Australian women in the game was first recorded in a tournament at Stawell, Victoria in October 1881.
On 16 December 1898 the first ladies’ bowling club in Australia, the Rainsford Bowling Club, was formed at the home of Mr. J. Rainsford Needham of Glenferrie, Melbourne.
The next year the South Melbourne Cricket Club Ladies’ Bowling Club was formed, the oldest continuous women’s bowling club in Australia until it disbanded a few years ago.
In 1907 the Victorian Ladies’ Bowling Association (VLBA) was formed and is the oldest women’s bowling association in the world. Other women’s associations were formed around Australia in NSW (1929), Queensland (1930), South Australia (1930), Western Australia (1935), Tasmania (1936), and Northern Territory (1983).
Following the unification of the RVBA with the Victorian Ladies Bowling Association (VLBA) in December 2009, the organisation was renamed to become Bowls Victoria.